- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Mia Hamm's return to the Washington Freedom lineup couldn't have come at a better time.

Hamm's season debut tonight against the Boston Breakers at RFK Stadium at least should give the Freedom, winless in their last five matches, a psychological and leadership boost.

Hamm, who hasn't played in a competitive game in seven months because of offseason knee surgery, most likely will come off the bench. Coach Jim Gabarra wants to see how tonight's game plays out before subbing in the Freedom's biggest star.

"I'm definitely not game-fit yet. Just from that perspective I won't be out there," Hamm said. "I would love to get in 20 to 25 minutes," which would give her a good indication of how her surgically repaired knee has progressed.

Hamm, the Freedom's leading scorer last season with six goals and four assists, last played in the Unity Games on Nov. 3. She performed last season on the injured knee. When the pain didn't subside during the offseason, Hamm elected to have surgery Feb. 26.

"This is my first major knee injury, and I guess I can say that I did it doing what I love to do. It wasn't some freak accident," Hamm said.

There is still some pain involved. The Lake Braddock graduate said she is unable to jump properly and full recovery from this kind of injury takes anywhere from 6-to-9 months. Hamm was diagnosed with a lesion on her left distal femur (thigh bone).

Without question, Hamm, the world's all-time leading goal scorer with 108 in international play, is the most-skilled player for the Freedom (2-4-3). Gabarra is hoping Hamm's mere presence will elevate the performances of her teammates.

"Her defensive presence up front will rub off on other people," Gabarra said. "She's willing to work hard and communicate. I felt that even in her current fitness she probably could have had two goals last week against Philly. There were a couple of breaks or balls that got played through that her pace and experience in those situations probably could have got us a couple of goals. I'm just looking forward to getting her on the field and having a player that dangerous out there."

A few weeks ago Hamm's left leg was considerably skinnier than her right leg. Now the difference isn't noticeable a testament to how hard Hamm has worked to build muscle.

Hamm's return is opportune. Beginning tonight against the Breakers (2-3-4), eight of the club's remaining 12 games are home. If the Freedom take care of business at home, the club probably will secure its first playoff berth.

Hamm found it tough watching the Freedom struggle and not being able to do anything about it. But her surgery was necessary, especially with the Women's World Cup next year in China and U.S. qualifying later this year.

"We knew it wasn't realistic for me to get back at the beginning of this season," Hamm said. "In terms of my leadership, hopefully when I get out on the field, I can do something for [the Freedom]. For our team, the biggest thing is communication. If you're trying to organize without communication, it's really tough to organize. I'll see how my knee reacts, and then we can base the rest of the season on that."


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